Friday, September 10, 2010

Split Down the Middle: A History of Violence & Act of Violence

Unlike most critics, I wasn't terribly impressed with David Cronenberg's 2005 crime thriller A History of Violence which is based on the graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. It features Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, the owner of a diner in fictional Millbrook, Indiana, who gets thrust into the public spotlight after killing two criminals in self-defense. While initially perceived as a peaceful man married to a lawyer (Maria Bello), with a teenage son (Ashton Holmes) and daughter (Heidi Hayes), we soon discover that he's not the man he appears to be. The idea of the conflicted hero is nothing new to movies -- especially film noir -- but that isn't the problem with the movie. What doesn't work in A History of Violence is the credibility of the story itself.

Soon after becoming a local celebrity for killing the bandits, Tom is visited by a scarred gangster named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who saw him on the news and insists that Tom own up to his true identity as a vicious gangster from Philadelphia named Joey Cusack. Years earlier, Joey had taken out Carl's eye. Tom denies these charges but Fogarty keeps stalking Tom and his family anyway. Under pressure from Fogarty and his new found fame, Tom's marriage and relationship with his son quickly become strained. Soon his boy gives in to his own violent side in a school confrontation and Tom is forced to murder Fogarty and his men with his son's help. Ultimately, Tom is compelled to return to Philadelphia to confront his gangster brother Richie (William Hurt, in a ridiculously baroque performance) who feels resentful that he took the heat from other mob families for his sibling's disappearance into domesticity.

For about the first third, A History of Violence manages to sustain power from our not knowing whether Tom is really this violent gangster he's accused of being. And Cronenberg's direction early on is crisp and unsparing (especially in the brilliant opening scenes which establish the arbitrary brutality of the gunmen). But once it's clear that Tom is Joey the thug, the moral dilemma and its ambiguity disappear from the story. There's nothing dramatically at stake except whether Tom will get away with his hidden identity and whether his family will learn to accept him. (I'm sure this is why there was a lot of critical hubbub praising the movie for being so "symbolic" of America's hidden dark side.) Also, since there is no longer any doubt to Tom's guilt, how would he expect to continue to get away with it? In one particularly ludicrous scene, the sheriff comes to visit and question Tom about these allegations. Tom tells him that he's not Joey. But instead of doing his basic police work by phoning (or perhaps e-mailing) the Philadelphia authorities to see if Tom's telling the truth, the sheriff simply takes him at his word. (I'm guessing that this part of the movie symbolizes America's "dumbness.") The whole problem with A History of Violence is that it tries so hard to be a thesis picture that it ends up making no dramatic sense. You can read tons of meaning into it because the meanings are all spelled out for you.

That's not the case with Fred Zinnemann's little seen 1948 drama Act of Violence which is a much better noir on a similar subject. In the story, Frank Enley (Van Heflin) has just returned home a hero from World War II after surviving a German POW camp. (Most of his comrades were murdered.) While being respected and praised for his upstanding character and charity in the California community of Santa Lisa, he is simultaneously being stalked by Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), an old friend, who also lived through the ordeal and was left with a crippled leg. What we learn about Frank, that his family and neighbours don't know, is that he was hardly a hero worthy of celebration. Instead, he had helped his captors in exchange for food and comfort. So with vengeance in mind, Joe Parkson, with his gimpy leg, means to exact justice.

Unlike A History of Violence, Zinnemann's picture doesn't traffic in generalities about the nature of our darker selves. By focusing specifically on Frank's encroaching guilt and Joe's dogged determination, Act of Violence delves much deeper and more believably into notions of cowardice and heroism. The shadiness of Frank's past isn't used to show us who he truly is (like it does with Tom in A History of Violence). Zinnemann, with the help of screenwriter Robert L. Richards from a story by Collier Young, instead shows contrasting impulses that also add suspense to the story. For instance, while Frank's wife Edith (Janet Leigh) has no clue about her husband's transgressions, Joe's partner knows the whole story (but she can't stop him from seeking revenge on Frank). Yet nothing turns out quite as you would expect. The moral quandary of Act of Violence makes it a far more satisfying picture than A History of Violence.

Act of Violence came as something of a surprise to me when I watched it a few years ago on Turner Classic Movies. I had loved a number of Fred Zinnemann's films (From Here to Eternity, The Sundowners and A Nun's Story), but they were scaled as larger classic humanist dramas. I would have never pegged Zinnemann for making a noir, especially such a good one. But maybe critic Roger Westcombe, writing for the Big House Film Society, saw that possibility when he said that Zinnemann's "Act of Violence [is]...[a] surprisingly powerful and affecting film...with a profundity, through its unsettling moral continuum, redolent not of Hollywood simplicities of good/evil but of the art one associates with Zinnemann’s European background. This contains a clue. Fred and his brother escaped their native Austria in 1938 but their parents, waiting for U.S. visas that never came, perished – separately – in concentration camps. The ‘survivor guilt’ this awful closing engendered must resemble the emotional see-saw ride which fiction like the ethical pendulum of Act of Violence can only start to expiate."

That emotional see-saw that Westcombe suggests is exactly what's missing from A History of Violence. Cronenberg's film embellishes the simplicities of good/evil by making the split between Tom/Joey such an obvious one. (He has 'nice' sex with Maria Bello when he's Tom, but 'forceful' sex on an uncomfortable staircase when he's Joey. Wouldn't it have been more interesting if his sexual acts were reversed?) Zinnemann recognizes that the characters in Act of Violence are not so conveniently split down the middle. He sees that their personalities are riddled with complexities. It's as if he realized what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke did when he wrote, "I fear that if I exorcise my demons, my angels will follow."

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. I will give you this, A History of Violence was not satisfying, but it was good. I saw it in the theater when it first came out and everyone in the theater seemed to love it. I'll have to check out Act of Violence.

  2. History of Violence was one of the disappointments of the 2000's that spawned my "there are no more good films" mantra.

    I'm growing increasingly weary of being promised good films and being given garbage. And it began with movies like Gangs of New York... movies that have one great performance if they're lucky, but are cold, hard, plastic affairs...... like everything else made in our wonderful new era of modernity.

    I hate film now. All good movies were made pre-2000, and I dare you to prove me wrong.

    Movie-makers worked out that the more popular movies weren't more serious, or deep, or art-ful... they were dumb, and so were the audiences.

    People are STUPID IDIOTS in this modern age, and the movies are tailor-made for that.

    Hence, we get movie adaptations where all the subtext is turned into text and details are changed SPECIFICALLY to cater for that brain-damaged portion of the population (ie. most people, the lowest common denominator).

    In the mid-twentieth century film-makers at least had respect for their audiences.